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New York City bus operating costs: an analysis

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Why NYC’s operating costs are so high, and what can be done to improve them

In October, Curbed covered New York’s subway operating costs, which are among the highest in the United States. As we reported at the time, “New York City Transit’s subway operating costs are high by both domestic and international standards—about 60 percent higher than those of the largest European systems, and 90 percent higher than in Chicago.”

But less talked about are the city’s bus operating costs, which are the highest in the country. The following table compares all major and most medium-size bus networks in the country on three metrics: operating costs per mile, operating costs per hour, and the percent of operating costs covered by fares, which the industry calls the operating ratio.

It’s plain to see: New York has, by far, the highest operating costs per mile.

Bus system operating costs

Bus network Cost per mile Cost per hour Operating Ratio
Bus network Cost per mile Cost per hour Operating Ratio
New York City Transit $30.40 $215 33%
San Francisco Muni $24.60 $195 28%
Boston MBTA $18.50 $180 24%
WMATA (Washington D.C.) $16.20 $160 23%
SEPTA (Philadelphia) $15.60 $160 29%
Chicago Transit Authority $15.20 $140 37%
Pittsburgh Port Authority $14.10 $185 28%
Seattle Metro Transit $13.90 $160 30%
Los Angeles MTA $13.20 $145 27%
Minneapolis Metro Transit $12.30 $145 24%
Miami-Dade Transit $12.00 $140 26%
Portland Tri-Met $11.70 $135 29%
New Jersey Transit $10.90 $150 42%
MARTA (Atlanta) $9.40 $115 29%
Houston Metro $9.20 $120 10%
Phoenix Valley Metro $8.80 $115 23%
Denver RTD $8.70 $115 25%
Dallas Area Rapid Transit $8.50 $110 13%
San Diego MTS $8.00 $90 36%
Charlotte Area Transit System $7.40 $100 26%
Alon Levy

Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office recently released a report, “The Other Transit Crisis,” detailing the problems of the city’s bus system, which it calls “the workhorse of New York City public transit.” The report found that “the MTA bus system has lost 100 million passenger trips in the last eight years, according to Stringer’s report. Manhattan saw the greatest decline with ridership down 16 percent since 2011.”

The comptroller’s report looks at operating costs per passenger, where New York is about average—but in light of the heavy bus usage in the city, this is not flattering. New York’s buses are so crowded that if its operating costs were in line with the nationwide average, it would have the best farebox recovery ratio and the lowest operating costs per passenger; instead, it’s behind Chicago and even behind San Diego, a car-oriented Sunbelt city whose busiest bus would rank 70th on New York City Transit.

Why are New York’s bus operating costs so high?

The high costs come from two distinct issues. The first is that traffic is so heavy that buses only average seven miles per hour. (Elsewhere among mature industrial cities, such as Chicago, the average speed is closer to 10 miles per hour.) In a dense city like New York, the bus spends very little time at cruise speed—it has to stop at red lights, in traffic, and at bus stops, with the engine still running. These starts and stops consume fuel and stress the systems, requiring more maintenance.

But the high costs are not just about slowness. The city is also first in the nation in operating expenses per hour, just by a smaller margin than in operating costs per mile. Here, there are several reasons, one of which is labor; the biggest single cost on buses is the driver, who is paid by the hour. (The other major costs are fuel consumption and maintenance.)

Most of the costs of bus operations are based on time rather than distance. In New York, labor arrangements call for eight-hour days. Moreover, the MTA pays drivers by the day: if they work five hours, they still get paid for a full day. As a result, bus drivers do not always work full days, leading to some inefficiency in bus scheduling. The average bus driver on New York City Transit spends about 1,150 hours behind the wheel per year. This is higher than the average for a subway train driver, which is 550 hours, but still far from a normal full-time schedule.

In Chicago, the situation is different. Adam Rahbee, a former manager at Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the MTA, Boston’s MBTA, and Transport for London, explained to Curbed that CTA gives its workers a fixed number of hours per week, which may vary from day to day. Thus, bus drivers in Chicago are paid only for hours actually worked. Full-time drivers average 1,425 hours a year behind the wheel, 24 percent higher than in New York.

Chicago is a union town, like New York; yet its operating costs per mile are half as high as New York’s, leading to the lowest subsidy per rider of the major bus networks in the country. The MTA could learn from Chicago’s labor and maintenance arrangements to further cut costs per hour.

The other issue is bus purchasing and maintenance. Adam Forman, of Comptroller Stringer’s office, told Curbed that New York City Transit has 3,683 workers doing bus maintenance. In Chicago, according to publicly-available CTA data, there are only 1,100 maintenance workers. CTA has 50 percent more service-hours per maintenance worker than New York.

Forman suggested one explanation for Chicago’s greater efficiency: It purchases buses on a regular annual cycle. Buses last 12 years, and CTA replaces 1/12 of its bus fleet every year. This means that the fleet’s average age, six years, is consistent from year to year, and so are maintenance needs.

In New York, bus purchasing is more haphazard, which leads to spikes in maintenance: six years after every major purchase, the city needs a large number of workers to perform mid-life refurbishment, while at other times, the workforce is relatively idle.

How can New York increase bus efficiency?

Andy Byford, the new head of New York City Transit, has promised to improve bus service in an effort to increase ridership—and there are some concrete ways that can be done.

Let’s tackle the slowness first. New York’s Select Bus Service (SBS) program has helped increase bus speed; dedicated bus lanes have helped reduce the amount of time buses spend stuck in traffic. On key corridors, the city could install higher-quality bus infrastructure to speed up buses further. At some intersections, the city could also install bus signal priority, which would turn the light green as the bus approaches, to prevent a crowded bus from sitting still at a red light.

MTA New York City Transit

Reducing the amount of time buses spend at stations has particular value. Off-board fare collection on SBS has helped passengers board the bus faster, resulting in 17 percent improvement in bus speeds on the M15 bus on First and Second Avenues in Manhattan. If New York City Transit could run buses at 10 miles per hour rather than seven, it would be able to provide 40 percent more service at the same cost.

The higher speed and frequency of service would encourage more people to ride the bus; it would also provide more capacity on the busiest and most crowded routes. Even though costs would remain the same, more passengers would ride and provide the MTA with more revenue, which would reduce the subsidy per rider, the figure most relevant to the state budget and to the taxpayers.

Moreover, the New York-based thinktank TransitCenter has recently proposed reducing the number of bus stops to one stop every quarter mile. Each stop slows a local bus by 30 to 40 seconds, and consolidating bus stops could speed up a route that averages seven miles per hour today to nine miles per hour.

The TWU Local 100, which represents bus drivers in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, supports reforms that would speed up buses. Marron Institute researcher Eric Goldwyn explains that the TWU is interested in bus reforms in order to entice more passengers to ride the bus. New York’s bus ridership has been decreasing for about ten years, and the TWU fears that this could threaten bus driver jobs unless the MTA figures out how to get people to ride the bus again.

In the face of declining bus ridership, the MTA needs to make sure it is not wasting money. It could rely on innovations and best practices to speed up buses, which would not only reduce costs but also help stave off ridership losses. Faster, more frequent buses would offer better value for money than the buses today, some of which are as slow as walking.

Saving money means the MTA could have more money for other priorities: it could run more service on either the buses or the subway, or it could invest in the system’s long-term capital needs. MTA management can and should focus on improving cost efficiency, for the system’s long-term health.

Alon Levy grew up in Tel Aviv and Singapore. He spent ten years in math academia and has blogged at Pedestrian Observations since 2011, covering public transit, urbanism, and development. Now based in Paris, he writes for a variety of publications, including Vox, Streetsblog, Voice of San Diego, PlanPhilly, Urbanize.LA, Railway Gazette, and the Bay City Beacon. You can find him on Twitter @alon_levy.